Sing a Song of Sonjas

Today’s post features sword-slinging 80s movie star Red Sonja. Freely adapted,as they used to say, from the belligerent heroine of a 1934 Robert E. Howard story, Red (in mailshirt and hot pants) first turned up in the final Barry Smith issues of the monthly Marvel Conan comic.

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I read the award-winning Song of Red Sonja in 1973, at the age of ten- I was vaguely aware that the Hyborian epithet “wank” was a Bad Word, which was more than writer Roy Thomas was.  The hoyden Sonja returned in the b/w Savage Sword of Conan magazine in a number of short stories playfully riffing on Little Red Riding Hood.

Less amusingly, we learn there that her fighting prowess is a gift from a goddess ( identifed much, much later as Sgathach, the Gaelic warrior queen of Skye). Sonja is a rape survivor, which is a very dark element for a fantasy comics character. Seventies mores are clearly in evidence when she is given a bizarre and sensationalist chain mail bikini by Spain’s Esteban Maroto for these subsequent appearances.

Spinning off from a couple of further team-ups with Conan (including a charming one in which the Cimmerian is gang-raped by female monsters), Sonja gained her own bi-monthly series in the mid-70s. As a huge fan of the Belit arc in contemporary Conan, I picked up a few issues of Marvel Feature. These have been collected by Dynamite Entertainment as The Adventures of Red Sonja. Here are the contents of volume one…

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Red Sonja: this was first printed in the premiere issue of Savage Sword of Conan. Drawn again by Maroto, its decadent European feel reminds me of Satana, of course. It’s the story of how Sonja killed her royal employer, who was clearly having a sexual relationship with his albino bodyguard. Thomas coyly names him Trolus, as in “troilism”.

The Temple of Abomination: a short drawn by Dick Giordano, it’s more action-packed than the previous story. It’s the last of the Darkwood stories, set in an analogue of the Black Forest and a vignette with some evil satyrs. Greek mythological figures in  German woods: the Hyborian Age was ever thus.

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Blood of the Hunter: this was my first issue from Craig’s newsagents in Strathaven in early 1976. It’s the first collaboration of artist Frank Thorne and writer Bruce Jones. It’s a lush Tolkinesque world- very different from the medieval world Conan inhabits, although his stories were currently in pirate mode, off the coast of ancient Africa.

This feels like a Spaghetti Western: a story of revenge and suffering, where Sonja has a brief and bittersweet romantic moment with a crippled, peg-legged youth. He is murdered by the hulking villain but Sonja avenges him and obtains a mysterious key.

Balek Lives: I didn’t get this one at the time- I suspect it may have been part of a Grab-Bag I got on holiday in Morecambe in ’78- or perhaps even later. It’s essentially a Frankensten story, I suppose, and the conclusion of the storyline begun last issue.

Balek is a murderous clockwork giant with an exotic visual, suggesting Siamese or Khmer culture. It’s another example of the unique look of the series and its departure from the Buscema or even Smith visions of the Hyborian Age. Anyway, Red stops his rampage by pulling his key out.

Eyes of the Gorgon: this was the second issue I bought in ’76 and it’s set in a Hyborian Spain, I reckon. It’s the cruel story of a deformed idiot- a Quaismodo figure -whose sister, Delores, is posing as a gorgon to revenge herself on the villagers who killed their parents.

One sequence reminded me of Witchfinder General and it’s quite dark and sadistic. Surprisingly, it was reprinted in Marvel’s 1977 pro-feminism (ahem) collection, The Superhero Women.

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The Bear God Walks: I missed this one due to those pesky mid- Seventies distribution problems but I did read the latter half in a UK reprint in the early 80s. In an atmospheric, rain-swept forest, the Bear God is a sham to scam bounty hunters-until, of course, the real god turns up.

Again,this has something of the tone of a Spaghetti Western, were it not for the weather. Red meets a bounty hunter named Tusan; an Ollie Queen type, his flirting adds an edge of humour and friction that benefits the series. Of course, he’s not in the next issue…

Beware the Sacred Sons of Set: this is the second part of a crossover with the monthly Conan comic and the first issue of the series I actually enjoyed at the time- probably because Thomas is scripting now.

On her way to Venice- er, Venezia, Red is ambushed by jackal-men then meets Karanthes, a Stygian priest of Ibis from a Barry Smith back issue. Thomas has to sneak in an in-joke about Fawcett’s Sargon lookalike, Ibis the Invincible.

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Karanthes sends Red on a mission to steal a page from a magic book and sloshing through sewers, she encounters a Hyborian take on a New York urban legend- albino crocodile-men!

At the story’s end, we see Red’s POV of a scene from the previous Conan episode, as she discovers the Cimmerian and his lover, Belit the pirate queen, are about to steal the book page. Barbarian face-off!

The Battle of the Barbarians: this is, I think, the fourth part of the crossover. Sadly, due to copyright issues ( I imagine) we don’t see the preceding Conan episode, especially because a) I have never read it and b) it features Tara, the gamine who accompanied Conan as his squire in the Black Shadow storyline.

Thomas smuggles in Lovecraft references as the minor villain- a Stygian priest- invokes Yuggoth and R’lyeh. I also spotted a Lin Carter/Thongor reference: the lizard-hawks of Lemuria. After a duel among some skeletal remains, Red and Conan are attacked by the Stygian, who’s now part-pterodactyl. And there the collection ends.

I now prefer the baroque fantasy world that Marvel Feature Sonja inhabits; the Jones issues have virtually none of the purple prose captions beloved by Thomas. However, I still feel the apeing of Howard’s feverish style was a strength during the Smith Era. Perhaps the sense of staleness in mid-70s Conan makes the Jones stories also feel less “monster-of-the-month” than their Cimmerian contemporaries- although the core concept is almost always revenge. A contrast to Sonja’s dourness, such as the Tusan character from “Bear God”, was sorely needed, if just to stop her talking to herself.

I would be interested in reading further Dynamite reprints although the “mature” adventures of Thorne’s Ghita character sound wearisomely smutty. Interestingly, I gather that more modern Sonja  stories don’t refer to the unfortunate rape victim origin- although she does still wear the scale-mail bikini. It’s a pity that Marvel doesn’t have control over the character since the writers and artists of the House of Ideas made her one of the biggest female icons of the Seventies.  Definitely no pun intended.

One day, I may get around to blogging about Starfire, DC’s futuristic, mixed -race answer to Sonja. However, coming soon: Republic’s Captain America and the Masked Marvel serials.

All images are presumed copyright of their respective owners

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